Wednesday, January 18, 2012

From The House

Bluffton Today

We reconvened the session last week at the statehouse with a lot of housekeeping and disposition of matters held over from the previous year. One of those matters was the veto of Senate Bill 211, the I-95 Corridor Authority Act. This was a measure that had been in the works for several years that finally was passed and vetoed by the governor. We adjourned before the House could vote on whether to sustain or override the veto.

One of the frequently asked questions that I get at speaking engagements is why some things take such a long time to go from the initial idea to legislation to statute. The I-95 Authority Act is the perfect example of why important legislation should take a long time. The process is intentionally cumbersome because it is immeasurably more difficult to repeal and unwind legislation with many moving parts than it is to revisit the idea several times before passage. Ask the real estate folks about ACT 388.

You may remember a number of years ago when PBS aired a documentary on the I-95 corridor through our state, the so-called “Corridor of Shame.” It was a wrenching expose of failing schools and dismal economies in the mostly rural counties bordering along I-95 from Jasper County to Williamsburg County. It somewhat followed the Abbeville School District v. State of South Carolina lawsuit then making its way through the courts. The legislative response was to initiate a needs assessment process with the intent of creating a sort of special purpose district to focus on the problems highlighted by the media and judicial attention. The final product of the process was the proposed creation of the I-95 Corridor Authority. The authority would be funded by state tax money, as well as federal and private grants. It would have an appointed board, which could hire folks and enter into contracts. It was essentially a quasi-government within our state government. It would be tasked with improving education and economic development within its area of operation. At the time, it seemed like a serious, reasonable approach to tackling historically intractable problems in focus areas of rural South Carolina.

While the intent of the authority was certainly laudable, many of us had reservations about the transparency of an unelected authority spending state dollars, which were also commingled with private and federal moneys. Those dollars would be dispersed as “grants” to various entities, some of which had better financial controls than others. The original legislation went through a number of iterations during several sessions, finally passing last year, only to culminate in a veto by the governor.

Your legislator and many others wrestled with this idea. We sought the advise of constituents and spoke with public officials in our state and in other states where similar ideas had been tried. My thinking finally crystallized around the notion that the authority was a poor solution to a very difficult and historic problem. The problems of the I-95 corridor are essentially similar to those in much of rural South Carolina, varying only by degree. To create an unaccountable governmental entity to address one area, with built-in political and oversight complexities, just didn’t seem like the proper way to go. What once seemed idealistic and innovative, in the clarity of hindsight, seemed hopelessly vulnerable to the vagaries of unintended consequences.

Consequently, on the first day of session, after a brief caucus, your delegation fanned out to work the floor in favor of sustaining the veto. By a vote of 76-47, we carried the day.

In summary, both education and economic development will be addressed in all of our state, not simply along a particular road. An authority might have seemed a good idea in 2009, but by 2012, its weaknesses were glaringly self-evident. In my view, we didn’t just dodge a bullet, it was a howitzer shell.